There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to go to college. When I was merely six-years-old, I decided that I was going to grow up and go to Valparaiso University (Valpo), a small, private, Lutheran university in a nearby city. Why I never had a doubt and why I decided on Valpo with such conviction at such a young age, I’ve never really been sure of. Perhaps it was because I started reading at an early age and fell in love with literature. We’d drive past Valpo’s campus fairly regularly when we’d go to town for groceries. I was always in awe of the magnificent Chapel of the Resurrection and the air of higher education. I think part of me always knew that Valpo was where I belonged.
But, my parents never went to college. And, I wasn’t Lutheran. Regardless, I was in love. Completely and blindly in love. As I grew up, I did everything I could to be more involved and to better prep myself for college. My parents never stopped supporting my endeavors. When they would express concern for the number of activities I was involved in or how late I had to stay at school sometimes for a variety of meetings or theatre rehearsals, I would gently remind them that these were the things that would help get me into Valpo and that these were the things that would help get me scholarships so I could afford to go to Valpo. Sometimes they’d roll their eyes at me, but they still laughed and continued to support my over-achieving lifestyle.
Even though I never once entertained the thought of not going to college—and frequently laughed in people’s faces if they suggested such—I was still aware enough that my family would not be able to afford to send me to college, let alone to a prestigious, private institution. I knew that if I wanted to go to college, paying for it was going to be my responsibility. So I worked hard and never gave up faith that my collegiate was going to happen how it was supposed to happen.
The fact that paying for college was going to be my responsibility became even more evident when I was in about the 8th grade. My dad had worked in construction for over thirty years. He drove to Chicago every day (about an hour and a half drive one-way) to work for a job that he loved. He didn’t always love the commute or the city, but he loved the work that he did. Suddenly, Dad got hurt at work, and the doctors forced him to retire. It was devastating for him and for our family, too, but I didn’t really understand what all of that meant other than the fact that Dad couldn’t go to work anymore. It meant so much more than that. Dad’s work was his passion (besides his family). It was also what kept a roof over our heads and food on the table. Sure, there was still some money coming in from the Union and when his social security finally kicked in, but things were stretched pretty thin.
This is where my mom comes in. Before I came along, Mom was a waitress with her mom and sisters. Then I showed up, and Mom became a fulltime stay-at-home-mom for me and my little brother (who was born two years later). When Dad retired, Mom started her own business—a nursery, with flowers, produce, et cetera—to have another source of income for the family. We started working for the nursery immediately: helping around the greenhouses and in the fields and going to farmer’s markets to sell our products and produce. This was our lives from that moment on, in Small Town, USA. I still never doubted that I was going to go to college, but as I grew older, I began to feel guiltier about leaving the family business.
I applied to four universities (to be safe and because I’m excessive) my senior year and got into all of them. I was awarded a fair amount of scholarships to each one, but good ol’ Valpo proved to be the best choice on a variety of levels. The following fall, I packed up, and my family helped me make the big move to Valpo—a whole eight miles away from home. I roomed with one of my best friends from high school, against the advice of many people around us. That didn’t stop us from getting involved in our own things. I was on House Council while she pursued mock trial. We lived across the hall from our RA (who would become another of my best friends), and we both became RAs for the rest of our time at Valpo.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I’ve moved away and am pursuing another degree. Even more so now that I’m not ten minutes away to be able to run home and help out with something or run uptown to the market to see Mom while she’s out selling. These feelings come from a multitude of places. There are many days when I miss being barefoot in a field, planting vegetables, or digging trenches to save our valuable plants from floods. I miss helping my family and doing manual labor. That’s where I’m from and a huge part of who I am. The work ethic that my parents instilled in me is still one of my driving forces. I love the work that I’m doing, the field that I am, and the path that I’m on (as unknown as that may actually be). I know that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing, and I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
Sara Hazel Harrison